Downloading On The Run; Portable Digital Storage Units And CD Burners For The On-The-Go Photographer

Traveling today with a digital camera is certainly an enjoyable experience. If we are not careful in the field, however, at the end of the day we wind up with too many images and nowhere to place them. You can carry extra CompactFlash cards, but that can be expensive and you have to back them up anyway as you go. In addition, today's high-resolution digital SLRs, like my Nikon D2X, produce file sizes that fill up even the largest card capacities quickly. When shooting raw+JPEG on my D2X I get 68 images on a 2GB card. If you shoot 300 images per outing that's four or five cards, and that's only one day of the trip!

True, laptop computers or notebooks are a good choice for keeping both a log and transferring images, and now some will hold 100GB or more of information. Realistically, however, I don't want to be burdened with such a bulky piece of equipment (especially in harsh conditions or climates) unless my work absolutely demands it on location.

This is a composite of the two major types of storage units in the article. On the left is the Nikon Coolwalker (portable hard drive); on the right is the Delkin BurnAway (CD burner).

Field Storage And Back-Up Safe Storage
Minus the laptop you have two practical alternatives. One is what you might call portable "field storage" units that consist of a very compact handheld unit complete with a high capacity, internal hard drive that allows downloading to your computer once you have arrived back home. The second type is what I term "safe storage," which includes a variety of CD/DVD burners. They allow you to transfer all of your images right there in your vehicle or later when you return to your motel or campsite on a compact disc.

The Nikon Coolwalker is a portable hard drive with a capacity of 30GB. This unit only takes CompactFlash cards and checks in at only 12 oz.

In order to test a sampling of the available units I took one of each on a recent trip to the canyons of Arizona and Utah. I packed the Nikon Coolwalker (portable hard drive, $299.95) and the Delkin BurnAway (portable CD burner, $270) to get a
first-hand experience on just how each would perform 2500 miles away from home. In addition to the Coolwalker on the hard drive side of the ledger, when I returned home I included the Transcend Digital Album ($375) and the Epson P-2000 ($499, but recently upgraded to the P-4000). The CD burners included the Apacer Disc Steno CP300 ($369.95), EzPnP EZDigiMagic ($259), and Kanguru Slim FC ($249.95). New products introduced in late spring 2006 included units from SmartDisc ($499), Digital Foci ($599), GIGA Vu PRO ($895 for 120GB), Wolverine ($330 for 100GB), and the updated Epson P-4000 ($699) with an added capacity of images up to 80GB.

With a shape that is easy to transport in the tightest camera bags, the Transcend Digital Album comes with an integrated microphone to record a voice memo to your folder or photo.

Size Vs. Features
Size can be a major issue. The difference between a compact hard drive like the Wolverine FlashPac 7000 and a safe storage CD burner can be significant if you are cramped for space. The FlashPac measures 3x4.5x1" and, like the Transcend and Epson units, will fit into any pocket on your favorite photo vest.

Out West and in Antelope Canyon, I photographed this special light beam at midday. I then confirmed my data on the camera monitor and transferred the images from my card to a portable hard drive in my photo vest before moving on to the next location.

Given the nature of the beast and the size of current discs, the CD burners are much larger. Products like the BurnAway, Disc Steno CP300, or EZDigiMagic run an average of 6" wide, 8" long, and between 1-11/2" deep, not to mention an assortment of CDs, a charger, and a protective case that you have to bring along. Of course, if you consider backing up to a CD on the road important, then a portable CD burner makes sense.

Download Confirmation
Depending upon how comfortable you are with your equipment it is a good idea to confirm that your download has been successful before you format your memory card. Three of the portable hard drive units I tested, the Coolwalker, P-2000/P-4000, and Digital Album, plus the new GIGA Vu PRO, have a screen allowing you to view your images after downloading is complete. When it comes to the CD burners, the Disc Steno CP300 is the only one to have a small screen to confirm your actual photographic images, while the BurnAway, EZDigiMagic, and Slim FC show the progression of the recording process. If you were in a location type of shooting situation where you need immediate confirmation of hours of hard work (aside from the monitor on the camera) then the Coolwalker, GIGA Vu PRO, Digital Album, P-2000/P-4000, and the Disc Steno CP300 CD burner complete with playback feature would be at the top of your list.

The Epson P-2000 (and including the P-4000) has the largest viewing screen of all the products in our roundup. Measuring 3" across it is very bright and crisp and for a day in the field, comes with fully rechargeable batteries.

The Epson unit, like most in its class, comes with fully rechargeable batteries for easy use in the field.

Multi-Card Slots
Some units like the Coolwalker or the GIGA Vu PRO will take only CompactFlash cards and the P-2000/P-4000 only downloads from a CompactFlash or Secure Digital card. Digital Album, along with all of the CD burners, has the added convenience of taking Memory Stick, MultiMedia, Secure Digital, or SmartMedia cards along with Type I or II CompactFlash or modern Microdrives in one combination or another. This could work to your advantage especially if you are working with two or more cameras or traveling with other photographers, each with a different storage card.

(Above): With the flexibility of downloading data off most any memory card and transferring it to a high-quality CD or DVD, the Delkin BurnAway is perfect for the photographer on the move. (Below): Unique in its class, the Apacer Disc Steno CP300 has a viewing screen to confirm your recorded photographs after the transfer from memory card to CD is complete.

Portable Power
Downloading in the field and away from an AC source, battery life can be a significant factor. Like it or not, it does take time for these units to download images. It took an average of 7 minutes to download 25 raw+JPEG images on the Coolwalker; with a battery "burn time" of 11/2 hours I can download almost five 2GB cards with some juice remaining. The Transcend unit had the longest life between charges of 4-5 hours; the Epson units would go 21/2 hours; and the CD units run an average of 11/2 hours before you have to reach for the charger, AC adapter, or spare battery.

The Kanguru Slim FC is a finely crafted unit made to take the rigors of the traveling photographer. Included in the package is a compact CD containing the drivers and instruction manual.